IT has been argued that the successor should not be a biological heir. Between AD 96 and AD 192 the Roman Empire was ruled by the so-called ‘Five Good Emperors’, a phrase reputedly coined by Niccolo Machiavelli. None of the five Caesars was related by blood to his predecessor; instead, each emperor adopted his heir by selecting the best man. Machiavelli drew the conclusion that, “From the study of this history we may also learn how a good government is to be established; for while all the emperors who succeeded to the throne by birth, except Titus, were bad, all were good who succeeded by adoption, as in the case of the five from Nerva to Marcus. But as soon as the empire fell once more to the heirs by birth, its ruin recommenced.”
In other words, should any of our own benevolent autocrats want to leave a legacy of good government they should set about adopting a political heir.
Incidentally, Machiavelli also wrote of the Five Good Emperors, “They had no need of praetorian cohorts, or of countless legions to guard them, but were defended by their own good lives, the goodwill of their subjects, and the attachment of the senate.”
In other words, virtuous rulers do not require a ‘Special Protection Group’ or Z Category Security’. Bear this Machiavellian precept in mind when you see VVIPs compete in the number of guards surrounding them.
It is arguing against human nature to expect rulers to disregard their own blood. This leads us to the most popular form of monarchy in Indian politics, the dynasty.
Supporters of dynasty argue both sides of the ‘Nature vs. Nurture’ debate. They will swear that the children of the ruler have inherited the parent’s virtues. Or they will state that the best-trained rulers are those who have seen their parents in action because there is no school to educate future monarchs.
The Congress is often damned for pursuing the dynastic route but it is hardly unique. Whether it is the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, the D.M.K. in Tamil Nadu, the Akali Dal in Punjab, the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir, or a whole bunch of others, they are all single-family parties.
As I said, the Congress towers above the rest. And in truly imperial fashion, just as there is a ruling family in Delhi, the Nehru-Gandhis, there are princely families in the states. Amrinder Singh, whose forefathers were the Maharajas of Patiala, heads the Congress in Punjab, and his wife has her own roost in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi. Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna was once Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh; his son is now the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand and his daughter is president of the Congress unit in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Sheila Dikshit is the Chief Minister of Delhi, and her son Sandeep Dikshit is the sitting MP from East Delhi.
The Samajwadi Party has copied the Congress model. Mulayam Singh Yadav is the president of the party. Akhilesh Yadav, is the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s younger brother, Shivpal Singh Yadav, is the Public Works Minister in Uttar Pradesh, and another brother, Ramgopal Yadav, leads the party in the Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of the Parliament. Finally, Akhilesh Yadav’s wife, Dimple Yadav, has elected unopposed as the Samajwadi Party candidate from the Kannauj Lok Sabha seat, which her husband vacated on becoming Chief Minister.
In several states voters are asked to choose between an autocrat and a dynasty. In Uttar Pradesh, politics is dominated by Mayawati and the Mulayam Singh Yadav family. In Bihar, it is a tussle between Nitish Kumar and the family of Lalu Prasad Yadav. In Tamil Nadu, you can only choose between Jayalalithaa and the family of M Karunanidhi.
M Karunanidhi, in fact, took the dynastic principle to its logical conclusion. Faced with conflicts within the clan — the classic problem for all dynasties — he responded with the classic solution, a division of powers. Thus Karunanidhi’s favourite son, MK Stalin, was the heir apparent, another son, MK Azhagiri, was the virtual viceroy of southern Tamil Nadu, a daughter, Kanimozhi, was the party’s ambassador in Delhi, and a grand nephew, Dayanidhi Maran, has been and out of the Union Cabinet.
Predictably, since it is not any ideology but allegiance to a family that holds a party together, these dynasties are as adept in shifting allegiances as any autocrat.
In 1996 M Karunanidhi’s DMK was a founder of the non-BJP, non-Congress United Front government. In 1999 the DMK shifted toward the BJP when the National Democratic Alliance was in power. And in 2004 it joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance.
Such flexibility offers ample room for manoeuvre. But the weakness of the dynastic model is the mirror image of the autocratic model—autocrats have no heirs, dynasties have too many of them.
Bal Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, but his throne is being disputed in his own lifetime between his son, Uddhav Thackeray, and his nephew, Raj Thackeray. In the Akali Dal the battle was between Sukhbir Singh Badal, son of the current Chief Minister, and Parkash Singh Badal’s estranged nephew, Manpreet Singh Badal. When the Akali Dal wanted to weaken the Congress, it wooed Malwinder Singh, brother of the local Congress satrap, Amrinder Singh of Patiala.
Let us, however, never lose sight of a key fact, that these dynasties or autocrats enjoy power because they are voted in by the people of India. Indians have absolutely no problem with Maharajas, and this is a tradition of acceptance that goes back literally millennia.
India, as I said, started with the British model of government. The two began to diverge in the 1960s, quite dramatically so.
In 1963 the 14th Earl of Home surrendered his peerage and fought a by-election to the House of Commons, so that he could become the Prime Minister as plain Sir Alec Douglas Home. In 1966 Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister as a Member of the Upper House, and refused to fight any by-election until the next General Election.
The seeds sown in 1966 bore fruit in 1996. There is a gap of sixteen years between today and 1996, when HD Deve Gowda became the Prime Minister. For ten of those sixteen years we have had Prime Ministers residing only in the Rajya Sabha, refusing to stand for election to the Lok Sabha throughout their prime ministership.
This contempt for the ordinary voter goes farther. When you cast your vote in Britain, or say Germany, you know that a Cameron or a Merkel will head the government if their parties come to power. In India the electorate is not allowed to prefer one chief executive over another.
None of the Prime Ministers who reigned while sitting in the Upper House were ever mentioned as potential Prime Ministers, neither HD Deve Gowda, nor IK Gujral, nor Manmohan Singh. Even the elected MPs themselves had no say in the matter, all three men were foisted on India by various party monarchs cutting deals behind closed doors.
This extends to the states, particularly those where the Congress is the ruling party. After refusing to declare who the Chief Minister shall be before the election, the elected MLAs are denied their choice. ‘Leave it to the High Command!’ is the invariable response.
The result is policy paralysis in the Union Government, because the Prime Minister of the day lacks the power to push his own policies. And it leads to instability in the states, with Chief Ministers reduced to viceroys who serve at the pleasure of the Queen or even the Crown Prince.
This angers the middle-class but in India the middle-class is a minority. India’s history has conditioned the vast majority of Indians to prefer monarchy over democracy. In India myth is at least as important as history, if not even more so. And the Hindu scriptures are more familiar than any work of history.
Going through them I find just four instances of a monarch being removed from power. Nimi was cursed by Vasishtha. Vena was killed by the hermits for his corruption. Nahusha’s power was destroyed by the Saptarishis for his arrogance. Finally, and most spectacularly, Parashurama led a crusade against kings that lasted for generations.
It may or may not be significant that in each of the four instances the only men capable of rising against the oppression of the rulers were hermits. But having removed the cruel or corrupt ruler even the sages could not imagine an alternative model of government, certainly not democracy.
Nimi’s body was cloned to create Janaka, who was set to rule. Vena’s corpse was used to create Prithu, and he was placed on the throne. It was not necessary to clone Nahusha as there was already a son and heir at hand, Yayati. Parashurama, unforgiving to the end, handed the lands that he had conquered to Kashyapa but the sage could think of nothing better than to hand everything back to the same old dynasties. A disgusted Parashurama then quit North India, and created the west coast.
Strictly speaking, there were republics in ancient India. The richest, mightiest, and most famous of them all was the city state of Vaishali, the leader of the larger Licchavi confederacy. Unfortunately, the mercantile republic came up against Ajatashatru of Magadha, the first Indian empire-builder confirmed by history, who set about patiently destroying Vaishali’s power.
Ajatashatru succeeded so well that Magadha was the pre-eminent Indian state for the next thousand years. The kingdom he welded together still forms the giant Indian State of Bihar, whose capital is still Pataliputra, the city that Ajatashatru founded. (One of the two local Lok Sabha seats in the city of Patna is still called ‘Pataliputra’.) The imperial tradition dies hard; the current ruler of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, seems determined to emulate previous rulers, and bid to rule India itself.
Vaishali on the other hand has withered away, and is now classified as one of India’s most backward districts.
The story of Vaishali and Ajatashatru has never been forgotten thanks to their roles in the life of the Buddha, and Buddhists carried the tale across the wider Indian eco-sphere. The moral of the story, as Asians understood it, is that the cumbersome consensus- building machinery of a republic is no match for the brutal efficiency of a monarchy. And that unity and security are more important than liberty and equality.
Look at Sri Lanka, a Buddhist-dominated society, and you can see that tale still playing out today. Examine the Sanskrit roots of the ruling family’s name, and you find that ‘Rajapaksa’ means ‘the king’s party’.
Interestingly, when General Pervez Musharraf was the dictator in Islamabad the people supporting him in the Pakistan National Assembly were titled ‘the king’s party’, not ‘the President’s party’ or ‘the Army’s party’. It is as if Pakistanis were instinctively reacting to centuries of our shared history of monarchy.
After the fall of Vaishali there was no attempt at creating democratic republics for twenty-four centuries. When Mahatma Gandhi wanted to describe his ideal of governance he used ‘Ram Rajya’, the rule of the God-king Sri Ram. Mahatma Gandhi was rooted in the soil of India. The Mahatma’s heir, Jawaharlal Nehru, was so much an alien that he could, completely unselfconsciously, write a book titled The Discovery of India. A product of Harrow, Trinity, and the Inner Temple, he reached out instinctively to European thought, and the Constituent Assembly was content to follow.
Democracy and the principle of universal suffrage evolved over centuries in western Europe; the process had not even taken baby steps in the subcontinent when India received her independence in 1947. The Indian people did not achieve universal suffrage, they had universal suffrage thrust upon them.
It was the constitutional equivalent of performing a blood transfusion without testing for compatibility. In contemporary jargon the Indian people had been conditioned over centuries to a system of ‘Top-Down Management’; asking everyone to move to ‘Bottom-Up Processing’ would prove increasingly difficult.
The borrowed system appeared to work as long as Jawaharlal Nehru was there to preserve appearances, but it was breaking down in his own lifetime. Less than a decade after Nehru’s death his daughter, Indira Gandhi, would be called the ‘Empress of India’.
Indira Gandhi was far more rooted in the Indian ethos than her father; she would occasionally point out that she was far more comfortable speaking Hindi than he ever was. She was certainly comfortable with monarchy, deliberately nominating first one son and then the other as her heir, even naming the Congress party after herself. At the height of her power, meetings with ordinary Indians were described as a ‘Darbar’ or a ‘Darshan’, both regal terms. Indira Gandhi abolished privy purses for princes but she then restored monarchy at the heart of Indian politics.
Significantly, as in the days of Nemi and Vena, the true challenge to Indira Gandhi’s power came from the renunciates, chiefly Jai Prakash Narain, men who had consciously renounced the temptations of power. It was a model that was later used to topple Rajiv Gandhi by VP Singh. Most recently the model is being used by Anna Hazare, who speaks of his “brahmacharya shakti” and actively seeks the company of modern Gurus such as Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
The circle — a familiar metaphor in Indian thought — is turning, and the Republic is fast returning to a collection of princely states under an imperial centre. This is true not just of India proper but also of the larger Indian cultural continuum that is South Asia, or even South-East Asia.
Should we then say that democracy has failed entirely in India?
No, because there is one major difference between the monarchies of yore and those of today. The transfer of power is peaceful. Or, in Mahatma Gandhi’s honour, let us say it is largely non-violent.
Of the six ‘Great Mughals’ Babur and Humayun were not born in India, and spent much of their lives outside the country. Humayun died while his son was still young but Akbar would rebel against his guardian, Bairam Khan. When Jahangir was still Prince Salim he rebelled against his father, Akbar.
Prince Khurram rebelled against his father, the emperor Jahangir, before he rose to the throne as Shahjahan. And Aurangzeb would outdo them all, imprisoning his father, Shahjahan, executing two brothers, and driving a third into exile — before turning on his nephews.
Democracy has given India a gigantic safety valve in the form of elections, even if all that elections do is to enable a non-violent transfer of power from one monarch to another.
Let me end with an anecdote and a quotation. In 1787, as one of the delegates to the American Constitutional Convention left Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he was asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A republic,” came the answer—but being well-read in history, Benjamin Franklin added, “If you can keep it.”
The second is the somewhat condescending advice inscribed by a British architect when he designed the Central Secretariat in imperial Delhi: “Liberty does not descend to a people. A people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”
A ‘Republic’ and ‘Liberty’ did in fact descend upon the Indian people. We probably did not earn these blessings. Can we now keep them?
(TVR Shenoy is a senior journalist and columnist. He had served as the Editor of the weekly news magazine The Week and Sunday Mail and held various posts in Indian Express and Malayala Manorama. This is a transcribed version of the Mathai Manjooran Memorial Lecture by TVR Shenoy in the function organised by Kerala Press Academy).